When director George Miller mentioned that his preferred version of Mad Max: Fury Road (aka The Best) is in black and white, there was a resounding, “Um, what?” followed by a unanimous “OH HELL YES!” When he announced that said version would be included on the Blu ray, we here at Flixist collectively exploded in furious ecstasy. Because let’s be honest: black and white movies are pretty cool. You don’t see them much anymore, but if you have a filmmaker who understands how to utilize that look, then you have something seriously special.
Most movies that were shot in color should stay in color, but sometimes you might wonder what something would look like if it were run back through the post-production machine, this time colorless. How would it change? Sure, they would be different, but they would be every bit as compelling.
Here are seven of those movies.
Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably the most compelling film in a particularly compelling filmography. One of the things that makes it so fascinating is its use of aspect ratios, using visual cues to define different periods within the timeline of the narrative. It’s also gorgeous and full of vibrant colors, as are all Wes Anderson films. But I would love to see The Grand Budapest Hotel in black and white for exactly the same reason that Stephen Soderbergh released a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white: Because without the color, you’re forced to focus on everything else. Everyone knows how fantastic the compositions are in Wes Anderson films, but without color, you can get a whole different appreciation for the man’s artistry. This is more academic, perhaps, because you would unquestionably lose something in the translation, but I think you could learn a whole heck of a lot from seeing those colors completetly desaturated.
But on another level: rather than having an ultra-vibrant past, going black and white would have a very different feel to it. It would fit with the 4:3 aesthetic, which is most commonly associated with (at least in film) black and white movies. By using it as a specific choice for certain sequences rather than across the entire film, Wes Anderson would subvert audience expectations in a massive way. Color is such a fundamental part of his craft. But that’s not all he has to offer. A black and white release of The Grand Budapest Hotel would prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. – Alec Kubas-Meyer
The Coen brothers have a knack for visual style that emphasizes contrast and sharp distinctions between light and dark. (They even did the black and white The Man Who Wasn’t There in 2001.) So many of their films are candidates for black and white viewing, from noir/noirish fare like Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Fargo (1996) to the screwball homage The Hudscuker Proxy (1994).
My vote, though, is 1991’s Barton Fink, which is somewhere in my Coen brothers top three. While there’d be something lost when the color is absent, the costuming, textures, and performances might help get that color across. Fink himself, played by John Turturro, cuts such a striking silhouette whenever he’s on screen, like some pretentious ancestor of Henry from David Lynch’s black and white masterpiece Eraserhead. – Hubert Vigilla
Would anyone even notice? – Alec Kubas-Meyer
The Wachowskis’ first film, and arguably the one that’s aged the best, Bound (1996) is a stylish noir thriller and lesbian romance shot on a shoestring budget. The financial limitations made the Wachowskis focus on the craft of their camera and their visual storytelling. After a string of ambitious, big-budget boondoggles (most recently Jupiter Ascending), going back to Bound-territory might be the best idea for the Wachowskis’ next film.
There’s such stark contrast in so many shots of Bound, and a loving attention to the way that hard shadows and defined lines can enhance a scene and its mood. The leads Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon have this multi-era femme fatale look about them, as if they could exist alongside classic female leads like Barbara Stanwyck on the one hand and 90s-it-girls like Sharon Stone on the other. On top of its style, Bound is also noteworthy for being a sex-positive lesbian movie at a time when this was mostly unheard and taboo. – Hubert Vigilla
Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) was one of the least appreciated movies of the 90s and one of my favorite movies in high school. (I am so old.) A mix of hard-boiled noir, science fiction, and fantasy, the movie was made with light and shadow in mind. So much of the imagery goes back to masters of German expressionism like Fritz Lang, with plenty of nods to Metropolis (1927) and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The casting and the costumes help keep the world of the film in this noir-like state that would be perfect for black and white viewing.
Dark City would look gorgeous in black and white, like some peculiar noir film from another dimension. The Strangers, the pale-faced subterranean villains of the film, would be particularly chilling in stark contrast, and the occasional bright spots in the nocturnal film would seem like sunlight on a big screen. Later tonight, I may give the film a watch in black and white just to see what it’s like. – Hubert Vigilla
What makes black and white look good is contrast. The difference between the light and the shadows is everything in making a compelling black and white image. Honestly, that’s true in any image, but particularly when there’s no color to distract you. The film noir “look” is black and white not just because it was cheaper to shoot black and white and they wanted to save a few bucks; it’s because the high contrast, colorless look fits the atmosphere they created. Cigarette smoke (smoke in general, really) also looks particularly compelling in black and white. They create an intense, dramatic mood.
Blade Runner is a noir. I’m certainly not the first person to say that (I’m not even the first person on this website to say that), but that doesn’t make it any less true. You look at those images, and they have exactly that kind of gorgeous high contrast look that you get from an old classic. But it’s in color. And while it’s a spectacular use of color, a black and white version of the film would heighten that noir style. It certainly couldn’t replace the particular (and particularly gorgeous) color palette of the original, but as a companion piece? It’d be fascinating and beautiful. And hell, it’s been eight years since the Final Cut was released. I think Blade Runner is due for some new alterations. – Alec Kubas-Meyer
I love the films of Kelly Reichardt. She has a unique ability to force the best performances out of her actors, but the reason her movies should get a black and white treatment is her distinct way to tell a story through the environment the characters inhabit, be it how it is captured through the lens or how the actors and props interact with it.
The is especially true in Meek’s Cutoff, which follows Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano and others on a track through the dangerous Oregon desert. Meek’s Cutoff, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, is shot in an untraditional aspect ratio (1. 33: 1) and these portrait movies lend themselves especially well to the simple beauty of black and white photography (see last years Ida for proof). I would love to see every Reichardt movie in black and white, but Meek’s Cutoff is a no-brainer in my eyes. It needs to happen. – Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
The Godfather Part III is easily the weakest of Coppola’s masterpieces. That’s not to say it isn’t great, but it has it’s issues. One of the main ones is Gordon Willis’ cinematography, which goes way overboard on the shadows and lighting. It’s clear to see why, as this is the most somber and dark of the the three films, but maybe an all or nothing attitude wasn’t the best call in this case. Just check out the image above and they heavy shadow crossing over Al Pacino’s face.
But wait, it actually looks pretty good. That’s because it’s in black and white. Ditching the color for the film would allow it’s darkness to shift from overbearing to dramatic. The negative space created in black and white is perfect for a film where shadows creep out of every corner of every shot. It also fits the tone of the film fantastically, which is nihilistic and focuses heavily on Michael Corleone’s gilt. Finally, it would be a great nod to the classic gangster films that inspired Coppola. As the film comes full circle with Michael holding an orange and dying so too would the black and white of this, the third film in the franchise, bring the genre back to its beginnings. – Matthew Razak